October Manna From Heaven

TORONTO (Oct. 13) — In a city that continues to hunger for sports accomplishment, October of 2016 has been quite remarkable. And, we still have 18 days before Halloween.

It began for baseball fans, with the Toronto Blue Jays winning their final two games of the regular season at Boston to make the playoffs. An extra–innings thriller in the Wild Card game against Baltimore at Rogers Centre ended in the bottom of the 12th inning when Edwin Encarnacion belted a walk–off, three–run homer into the second deck in left–field. Then came the American League Division Series against Texas. After a pair of lop–sided victories in Arlington, the Blue Jays returned and walked off the Rangers Sunday night when Josh Donaldson alertly stole home on a botched fielding play in the 10th. It was the first playoff sweep in Toronto franchise history. And, the culprit on the decisive sequence was none other than Rougned Odor — he of the right–cross to Jose Bautista’s chin last May at Globe Life Park. Now, the Jays prepare for what should be a splendid American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians.

With the Major League playoffs in full swing, it was suggested the Toronto Maple Leafs would begin their Centennial season in the National Hockey League beneath the radar. Yeah, right. Try being inconspicuous when the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft scores four goals in his first game to establish an all–time record for newbies. The rumor circulating early today that Auston Matthews will be on the 2017 Hockey Hall of Fame ballot is a stretch. Let’s wait until some time in the 2030’s for the Arizona kid. But, no player in NHL annals — not Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid… or anyone else — has so dazzled in his inaugural performance. Matthews’ eruption in a 5–4 overtime defeat at Ottawa last night brings the Maple Leafs home for their Air Canada Centre debut (Saturday, against Boston) as much “under the radar” as one of those fat, “Guppy” airliners that haul enormous cargo loads between continents.

It was all Auston in the local newspapers today:

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ANOTHER HIGHLIGHT FOR ROMY

My ol’ pal, Paul Romanuk, called last night’s nationally televised opener from the Canadian Tire Centre on Sportsnet. “I’ve been fortunate to do play–by–play for a lot of big games and tonight ranks among the most memorable,” Romy said on the phone about an hour after Matthews’ four–goal effort. “From a broadcasting standpoint, we were hoping for some kind of opening–night story to develop — be it a goal by Matthews, or a big night by Mitch Marner or Derek Brassard [making his Ottawa debut after scoring 27 goals for the New York Rangers last season]. But, this story went from ‘big’ to ‘gob–smacking’ in a hurry.”

Romanuk sat alongside stats–man James Murdoch in the broadcast booth while analyst Garry Galley stood between the benches at ice level. Mindful of it being a nation–wide telecast, Romy did an excellent job of preventing Leafs–centric commentary (not easy on this night) by reminding viewers of Ottawa’s resilience. On three occasions, the Senators tied the match after falling behind, and then won it early in overtime on a goal by Kyle Turris. Despite the on–going spectacle of Matthews’ record performance, Romanuk said the telecast ran smoothly. “Clearly, we were awe–struck by what was happening on the ice but we didn’t have a lot of time to discuss it when the action stopped,” he explained. “During commercials, for example, we were talking about what images or replays viewers would see coming out of the break. I do remember saying ‘Holy sh–!’ to Garry in a commercial set… I think after Matthews’ third goal. And, he replied the same.

“Otherwise, it was all fairly normal.”

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THE FIVE–MINUTE OVERTIME SESSION BEGAN ON SPORTSNET (ABOVE)… AND ENDED QUICKLY WITH KYLE TURRIS BEATING LEAFS GOALIE FREDERIK ANDERSEN. CHRISTINE SIMPSON THEN INTERVIEWED A SUBDUED MATTHEWS, WHO TOOK OWNERSHIP FOR A LAZY BACK–CHECK ON THE DECISIVE MARKER.

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After the game, it was clarified that Matthews had established a “modern–day” NHL record. The so–called “modern era” began with the advent of the center red–line for the 1943–44 season. It first allowed players to pass the puck from the defensive zone to their side of center–ice (the rule was modified coming out of the 2004–05 lockout to enable defensive–zone passes beyond the center red–line; previously, this was considered a two–line offside). So, the pre–modern–era record for goals by a player in his first NHL game is shared by Joe Malone (Montreal Canadiens) and Harry Hyland (Montreal Wanderers), who each scored five on the league’s very first night: Dec. 19, 1917. Prior to last night, the modern record of three goals had been accomplished by three players — Real Cloutier (Quebec) vs. Atlanta, Oct. 10, 1979; Fabian Brunnstrom (Dallas) vs. Nashville, Oct. 15, 2008 and Derek Stepan (New York Rangers) at Buffalo, Oct. 9, 2010.

Still unanswered — though most unlikely — is whether someone other than Matthews in the modern era has scored four goals in his first NHL game with a team… regardless of age or number of seasons played.

I put the question, this afternoon, to hockey historian Eric Zweig, who helps to compile statistics for the annual NHL Guide & Record Book: “I cannot swear on a stack of bibles that NO ONE ELSE has ever done it,” Eric replied. “The NHL Guide lists all games of five goals or more, but I don’t know of any list of every four-goal game. I’d say it’s unlikely anyone else has, but I don’t know for sure. I sort of feel as if we’d all know the story had a player such as Phil Esposito scored four goals in his first game after a trade.”

Romanuk turns 55 at the end of this month. He made his mark on Canadian television as the No. 1 play–caller for NHL games on TSN between 1989 and 2001. Working with ex–NHL coach Gary Green and Toronto Maple Leafs legend Howie Meeker, Romy called the regular–season; the Stanley Cup playoffs, and all international tournaments involving Canada (as with Gord Miller, today). During my tenure covering the Maple Leafs for The FAN–590, I spent many–a–Sunday morning alongside Romanuk. In the early years of LEAFS–TV, Paul hosted the two–hour–long “Reporters” show. With such colleagues as Mike Zeisberger (Toronto Sun), David Shoalts (Globe and Mail), Tim Wharnsby (CBC.ca), Steve Milton (Hamilton Spectator) and the late Jim Kelley (Buffalo News), we would discuss and debate issues surrounding the Blue–and–White.

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ON THE SET OF LEAFS–TV “THE REPORTERS” — SUNDAY, OCT. 14, 2001 — WITH PAUL ROMANUK, MIKE BROPHY AND MIKE ZEISBERGER. WE HAD LOTS OF FUN IN THOSE TWO–HOUR GAB SESSIONS.

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Though last night’s eruption by Matthews will forever rank among the most memorable games that Romanuk has called, he admitted it cannot rate higher than fourth on his personal list, which includes:

No. 1 — May 8, 1994: The gold–medal game at the World Hockey Championships in Milan, Italy. Canada defeated Finland to win the event for the first time since 1961. When Bill Ranford stopped Mika Nieminen in the shootout — after Luc Robitaille has scored for Canada — Romanuk exclaimed, “It… is… over!!”

No. 2 — Mar. 11, 1996: The final NHL game at the Montreal Forum, as the Canadiens defeated the Dallas Stars, 4–1. In a post–game ceremony, Maurice (Rocket) Richard, said to be the most beloved Habs player of all time, received a 16–minute standing ovation. Fire–lit torches were passed from the surviving Montreal captains — Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, Henri Richard, Serge Savard, Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau (playing, that night, for Dallas) — to the 1995–96 captain, Pierre Turgeon.

No. 3 — Apr. 26, 1996: A marathon Stanley Cup playoff game at the old Capital Center in Landover, Maryland between Washington and Pittsburgh — won by Petr Nedved of the Penguins at 19:16 of the fourth overtime period. The match ended at 2:23 a.m. EST.  At the time, it was the fourth–longest game in Stanley Cup history, and the longest since 1936. Today, it ranks sixth. On Apr. 24, 2003, Anaheim defeated Dallas at 48 seconds of the fifth overtime session. Three years earlier — on May 4, 2000 — Philadelphia had beaten Pittsburgh at 12:01 of the fifth overtime. Modere (Mud) Bruneteau of Detroit still holds the record for latest overtime marker (Mar. 24, 1936), scoring on the Montreal Maroons at 16:30 of the sixth extra period.

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PAUL ROMANUK (LEFT) AND FORMER SPORTSNET ANALYST MIKE JOHNSON OUTSIDE LEVI’S STADIUM IN SANTA CLARA, CALIF. (HOME OF THE NFL SAN FRANCISCO 49ers) PRIOR TO AN OUTDOOR NHL MATCH BETWEEN THE SAN JOSE SHARKS AND LOS ANGELES KINGS — FEB. 21, 2015.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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